If there is one single word that comes to mind when first considering Lancaster, Pa.’s The Stray Birds’ self-titled full-length debut, that one word would be “tasteful,” and by God, there is so much to be said for taste.
It accentuates strengths and hides weaknesses. It gives fans enough to fall in love yet displays enough ambiguity to force them into begging for more. It creates a solid listening experience without ever becoming boring. It immediately earns the respect of those who are paying attention, and most importantly, it suggests an acute level of intelligence within the artists at hand — a type of smartness that all but forces listeners to trust whomever they are listening to enough to come back again when Album No. 2 is completed and released.
Yes, indeed. There is so much to be said for taste.
All told, such is precisely what makes this Stray Birds set so unbelievably impressive. The folksy bluegrass of Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charles Muench isn’t just great because of how tasteful it is; rather, it’s how pristine that level of taste is presented. These 11 songs are spotless, a newly installed window on which some glass-cleaner just spent 2 1/2 hours touching up. From a production standpoint, you can’t sound more professional, and from an artist’s standpoint, you can’t sound more gifted. To think that this level of competency exists within the local music scene isn’t just reassuring — it’s a revelation.
“Dream in Blue,” the album’s first track, is as infectious as it is pretty. The inflections in de Vitry’s voice are warm and sparse, combining for a fantastically poignant introduction. Her banjo work is equally as mesmerizing, the plucky undertone of the performance creating a subliminally affecting countrified backdrop. It’s the perfect first step on a journey through barns and cornfields that could take place only during the latter days of spring.
Equally as endearing is the vocal work from Oliver Craven, the set’s most prominent male voice. “Heavy Hands,” “Just Sayin'” and “25 to Life” come alive with his Southern drawl that evokes both old-school and new-school values, the twang of a young Hank Williams meshing with the modernity of Scott Avett. Each track shines a light on the Birds’ secret weapon: storytelling. “Walk/ Walk my feet/ Walk my feet down the dirt roads, the alleys and the streets,” he sings on “Hands” with such a picturesque sense of tenderness that the only thing more vivid would be a high-def photograph. “25 To Life,” meanwhile, is a moving recollection of a hard-luck prisoner’s tale set against an acutely sad musical background. “There ain’t no romance in 25 to life/ Still a kid, I’ll probably die in my cell,” Craven moans on top of perfect backing harmonies, and the result is inescapable.
Interestingly, the most significant track of the bunch might actually be the only one without words. Their song “Give That Wildman a Knife/ Bellows Falls/ Waitin’ on a Hannah” is five minutes of pure fiddle. Oddly veering into the land of traditional Celtic music (or, say, The Chieftains), the opus is such a drastic change of pace that you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer ability both de Vitry and Craven display as players. It’s fascinating, really, to hear these two violins go back and forth, speaking to each other like Miles Davis and Tony Williams would in the 1960s when the former was just figuring out how to dive into fusion. It’s a conversation on which one should be delighted to eavesdrop.
Still, words in the literal sense can always go a long way, and despite the versatility displayed in bunches through all of “The Stray Birds,” the trio are arguably at their best when de Vitry uses her sultry voice as the captain of this well-built ship. “Wind & Rain,” the set’s final track, is living proof that parting is almost always sorrow-filled as a quiet acoustic guitar helps carry her Joni-Mitchell-meets-Carole-King-meets-Natalie-Merchant vocals over the finish line. The sparse nature of her utterances add a layer of sincerity that is simply impossible to fake. It’s a sound as haunting as it is sardonic, as lazy as it is powerful.
Then again, maybe that’s unfair. Because despite how effortless The Stray Birds make crafting this kind of stuff appear, it’s imperative to understand how spoiled we are in having this type of remarkable craftsmanship available to us so close to home. There is a lot to be said for an abundance of taste in creativity, remember. And while the first word that comes to mind when considering these three artists might be tasteful, there’s another one that might not be far off: perfection.
And by God, there is so much to be said for perfection.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***